Review by Josh Wallaert
by Mathias Svalina
New Michigan Press
648 Crescent NE
Grand Rapids, MI 49503
37 pp., $8.00
“In the beginning there was a pen that drew itself into existence.”
Thus opens Mathias Svalina’s Creation Myths, a chapbook of twenty-four alluring prose poems, or “myths,” that posit the origins of twenty-four alternate worlds. “In the beginning everyone looked like Larry Bird / but everyone did not have the name Larry Bird / & this was confusing,” according to one poem. “In the beginning the only job was unwrapping the mummy,” later on.
The idea that a poem might write itself into being is an old one. This is the concept that animates Daffy Duck in Duck Amuck, or Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, or even, you might say, the Book of Genesis itself. It is especially familiar to poets, who spend their earthly days calling forth objects from the void. Svalina knows what it’s like to play the Creator:
After four years God was updating his livejournal & wrote / it may not be good enough, it may not be the best world ever, but its my world & I’m just sick of tinkering with it, so I’m going to give it a name & call it done & move on to something else.
Creation Myths constructs a series of laboratory experiments in which the language-world is forced to reinvent itself from the scraps of human civilization. The basic elements are dirt, water, books of insects, azaleas, lasagna, tarpits, barbed wire, Mr. Pibb, hair dye, collectable fantasy knives, and Shell stations in Des Moines. The physics are woolly and strange: “In the beginning everything I said exploded. I would say I am holding a glass of ice water & the glass of ice water would explode.” Or: “In the beginning the birds grew wings out of their chests.” Or: “In the beginning people had cornfields rather than sex parts. They had to attend to them every day or they would grow weedy & wild.”
The birds with wings growing out of their chests address a revolutionary communiqué to the bird-makers, but they send it by postal mail, which the bird-makers ignore, because it doesn’t come over their Blackberries. The people with cornfields stop one another on the street to exchange compliments and discuss the latest Macy’s sale. These characters inhabit worlds that are both utterly foreign and eerily similar to our own: mysterious, exotic, banal, occasionally punctuated by moments of unspeakable beauty. We may find in their existence a reflection of our own fears and desires, our loneliness, our materialism, our militarism, our capacity for love.
Often, the conceit feels strained. My attention falters in the third poem when the Church of Hovercrafts meets the Church of Money. And I grow restless in the tenth poem when evolution takes hold in a soup pot: “The slices of carrots laughed at the chunks of celery that were almost liquid. The yellow chunks of potato mocked the broth. The hard lentils at the bottom of the pan stayed quiet but smugly so.” The weakest poem in the book begins with unicorns. Yes, unicorns: “So many unicorns that a splinter group of unicorns grew tired of being so special & cut off their horns & sold their horns on eBay.” Svalina noodles aimlessly here, and readers like me will get a little grumpy at times. We want more discipline and more rigor than these poems are willing to provide.
But, of course, we’ve got it all wrong. The noodling here is essential to the form. Even in its mistakes, Creation Myths remains true to the process of artistic creation. Sometimes, as in the fifteenth poem, you wake up in the morning, you sit down at the computer, and all you’ve got is a fox, a tuba, and a handful of paperclips in the void. The tuba wants to play the polka. The fox wants to eat a vole. The paperclips are no help at all. Faced with such an impossible creation, most writers would turn off the computer and go back to sleep. Not Svalina. He follows through with even his failed experiments. When the malfunctioning poem does not come to life, he waves his magic wand one last time:
The void was disappointed with its creations. It created a soft-serve ice cream machine & climbed inside & thereafter it was known as the word.
The void said to the soft-serve ice cream machine: Knock-Knock.
Soft-serve ice cream machine: Who’s there?
The void: Tuba.
Soft-serve ice cream machine: Tuba who?
The void: Tuba toothpaste.
Soft-serve ice cream machine:
Soft-serve ice cream machine: What’s toothpaste?
The void: Oh, just something I was thinking about creating.
The lines may be a little loose, the images sometimes miss the mark, but Creation Myths is nevertheless an exciting collection of prose poems. For every one experiment that results in overcooked noodles, there are three or four that explode in glorious fire. Svalina’s fierce imagination is the poetic equivalent of the Large Hadron Collider, the particle accelerator that will open next month on the Franco-Swiss border. As I write this review in August 2008, scientists are not sure what will happen when they start the collider. It may confirm the existence of the Higgs boson, strangelets, and supersymmetric particles. Or it may destroy the world as we know it in a micro black hole. Beneath the ground, Creation Myths advances the cause of language and science:
In the spaces where the things used to be, in the craters left after the explosions a new kind of mold grows. It grows orange on same days & yellow on others. It grows quickly & always toward me. I’m not sure what will happen when the mold reaches me but I hope I will be brave. I hope I will not say mold. There is so much I shouldn’t tell you. I know your name is Seashore. But your name is Animal. That’s my name too.
Creation Myths won the 2007 chapbook competition sponsored by New Michigan Press and Diagram and is produced with the elegant design that readers have come to expect from the series. Highly recommended for theoretical chemists, shamans, and adventurous children. I think you’ll like it, too.
Josh Wallaert lives in Vancouver, B.C. His stories are forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review and Black Warrior Review. He is co-director of the documentary Arid Lands (2007) and proprietor of the internet curiosity Webster’s Daily.